“What is it with all the chicken bones all over the place? We can’t take a walk without finding chicken bones,” says Steve Mulder, who owns Zoom Room in Rockville with his partner Jean-Louis Marechal. Any urban dog owner knows Mulder’s plight with the couple’s dog Abby. And it’s the reason why one of the commands taught in Zoom Room’s “Basic Manners” group dog training class is “Leave It.” Also referred to as “drop,” it’s not actually an easy command to teach a dog, at least not without the aide of a professional trainer like Mulder.
Same goes for another command that dog owners are all too eager to teach too early: “Come,” or “here.” Because odds are when your dog isn’t sniffing out a chicken bone, she might be closing in on something smelly she’d like to douse in — that is, roll in — as if it were perfume. “If a dog is doing something that it likes,” says Penelope Brown of Phi Beta K9 School for Dogs, “why should it come away from that just because you asked? Unless you’ve developed a relationship such that it wants to do what you ask.” To a dog’s mind, Brown explains, your request makes no sense. “What’s your problem, buddy? This is the coolest thing to roll in. I’ll never come to you again. You just shout and deny me.”
To Brown, teaching dogs is not so much about fixing problems but about nurturing mutually beneficial, enriching relationships — built on positive association and reinforcement. For that reason, when hired to teach dogs, which she offers to teach in private at-home lessons, Brown always starts with “the name game — where the dog’s name is basically associated with something awesome.” In other words, you strive to always say your dog’s name in a happy tone, even rewarding him for responding with a treat or a ball throw. This runs counter to common behavior that confuses dogs, she explains. “What we tend to do is call and say the dog’s name in all contexts: ‘Fido, get your head out of the trash!’ ‘Hey Fido, come here.’ ‘Bad dog, Fido!’ ‘Fido, here’s your dinner.’ ‘Fido, let me cut your nails.’…There’s a 50 percent chance something icky’s going to happen, so he might think twice about responding.”
Another attention-getting exercise Brown uses is what she calls “touch,” in which you ask your dog to touch her nose to your hand and reward her with a treat. This is useful when hiking or even just walking on the street, when you need to get your dog out of the way of passersby. “If you’re trying to pass somebody, ask her to ‘touch’ and then you can move your hand behind you so you walk single file. And then bring her back around and give her a reward.” In other words, it’s a way of getting a dog to move by asking her, rather than forcing by pulling or dragging her.
“I try to have treats with me [at all times] because I always want to reinforce something great,” Brown says, adding, “You carry around stuff that you know they like — some dogs [or dog owners] prefer a ball to a treat. It doesn’t have to be food, it’s just an easy currency to trade in.”
Probably the most common dog command is “sit,” followed by “stay.” But nothing happens overnight, as noted by Dr. Gary Weitzman, formerly of the Washington Animal Rescue League and known as the on-air veterinarian for local NPR station WAMU’s nationally syndicated show The Animal House. “For a dog, learning to ‘sit’ is a basic skill,” he writes in How To Speak Dog, the helpful National Geographic guidebook he put together with writer Aline Alexander Newman. “But dog training takes patience. And you must be consistent. Always speak the same words in the same tone of voice.”
Another popular command is “down,” which is actually a pretty complex behavior for a canine to learn. It can require lots of patience, practice and positive reinforcement offered in stages. “If you say ‘down’ and they just sort-of one-paw it and lower their head and then pause because they’re not really sure what you’re asking,” Brown explains, “you can reward that because they’re on the right track. And that will build their confidence to try more.”
But the key to teaching a dog new tricks is to be as clear and consistent as possible about what you want — and also quick to offer a reward and verbal reinforcement. The clearer you are, the faster a dog will learn. But you can’t rush it — or expect too much too soon.
Brown compares the process to a human learning to do word games. “If the first time you ever did a crossword puzzle was the Sunday New York Times, you probably wouldn’t do it again. It’s too painful.”
The Seven Basic Dog Commands
For information on Zoom Room Rockville, call 301-825-9113 or visit zoomroomonline.com/rockville-dog-training.html.
For information on Phi Beta K9, call 202-986-1147 or look for “Phi Beta K-9” on Facebook.